First and foremost, I cannot do this facility justice in my review – it was ABSOLUTELY amazing and words cannot express how much I enjoyed this experience! A few months ago I read an article in the Jacksonville magazine about White Oak Conservation which is one of the top conservation facilities in the world. They specialize in breeding, researching and training various species including rhinos, okapi, giraffes, cheetahs and plenty more that I’ve never heard of and certainly couldn’t spell! It is situated on 13,000 acres in Yulee, just south of the Georgia border and is home to more than 450 animals (including the largest population of cheetahs in the US)!
I asked my friend Kari if she’d be interested in going with me and without hesitation she agreed! We were waiting for the weather to cool down a bit before we set out on our adventure, and of course I used my birthday as an excuse to take the day off work and schedule a tour. Tours are only offered on Wednesdays and Fridays and last about 2-2.5 hours. (However, it is my understanding that they will schedule a tour on Saturday every now and then)
After driving about 20 minutes on a dirt road and getting multiple “are you sure we’re going the right way” questions from Kari, we arrived at the dance studio. A dance studio in the midst of this huge animal conservation area?!?! YEP – that’s right. . .apparently (if my memory serves me correct) the previous owner was friends with Mikhail Baryshnikov (famous for ballet dancing or if you’re like me, famous for his role he played in Sex in the City” – this proves that I need to be more cultured!) Baryshnikov hosted many performances at White Oak including, among others, the American Ballet Theatre.
It was an absolutely amazing day – there was not a cloud in the sky and the high was 80 degrees! It was PERFECT!!!! We set out for our “Safari” tour in an open trolley-type bus with our two guides who were extremely knowledgeable. Brendan comes from South Africa where he studies rhinos and Stephanie has been working at the conservation for 20+ years, she told me the exact time frame, but apparently I should have taken better notes!
First stop was the rhinos and immediately I was beside myself, especially when we got to get out of the trolley and PET THEM! Never did I ever think I would be able to say I’ve pet a rhino AND take a picture with one! The best part was every now and then we’d be talking and Stephanie would be like “Careful, horn to your left and a rhino would be coming up behind us – just curious, not aggressive at all!!!”
Then we stopped by to see the unlikely pairing of two best friends – a cat and a dog. Coming from a cat/dog household, I know good and well this is not common – it is extremely rare for me to get my two in the same room without chasing after the other! BUT, these two have been best friends since the beginning because the cheetah lost its sibling right after birth and they brought in an Anatolian Shepherd to be its companion. (They are now 10 years old!)
I pulled this picture from the White Oak Conservation Facebook page (I hope they won’t mind) but it shows the two of them together and when I was there, they were doing their own thing so I didn’t get a good picture!
(We also passed by a cheetah with its four cubs just lounging around!)
Next up through Safari-land, we passed by some gazelle’s, horses, asses, zebras and plenty of other animals that I have never heard of – including this little guy that was only three weeks old and was hiding thinking we couldn’t see him! So incredibly cute, it reminded me of the beginning of Bambi (even though I don’t think it was a deer) but with the wobbly little/scrawny legs!
THEN MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE – I was literally like a little kid and could not wipe the ear-to-ear smile off my face! WE GOT TO FEED THE GIRAFFE!!! This was something I was hoping to do – sure I’ve done it at the zoo, but this was different, I was on the ground, not on a platform at their level and Stephanie told us to hold on to it tight and let them tug it out of our hands – they were basically pulling me up to get it – it was AMAZING! I could’ve done it all day! Is it weird that I got excited that one accidentally licked my hand while grabbing the twig?
Last stop was the Okapi, again an animal I had never heard of until I started researching White Oak, but this endangered species is most closely related to the giraffe believe it or not, even though it has stripes and you’d assume it would be a zebra.
In case you couldn’t tell by my excitement – this tour was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING and I’d highly recommend it to anyone! It cost $100/adult; $50/children 3-10 and worth every penny ! I’d be open to going again anytime with anyone!!! They even have a safari from the saddle tour which I’d love to do next!!!